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A Sweeter Smile

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"Where are you?"

Zhenya grimaced, unseen by Alexander on the other end of the phone line. He had anticipated Alexander's impatient tone, primarily because he knew he deserved it. After all, it had been Zhenya's suggestion that they skate together in Moscow over the summer, and now he was delaying their start by not showing up.

It was early afternoon in Russia when Alexander called him, the third time in as many days. Zhenya did the mental math to calculate the time difference in Moscow when the phone began to ring. Alexander was done at the gym, looking to get on the ice and getting annoyed by Zhenya's empty spot beside him in the locker room.

By contrast, Zhenya's day was just getting started. When he paused at the back door to look outside, the sunrise was still throwing some final hues of purple and orange over the lake, though most of the sky was beginning to turn hazy blue, which would simmer into brightness as morning ticked on and the clouds dissipated.

Zhenya had spent the earliest part of his morning pulling Sid back into bed after his alarm went off.

"It's too early," he pled while Sid made a small effort to pull his hand out of Zhenya's grasp.

"It's the same time as every morning," Sid laughed at him.

"Stay, sleep more.

"You don't have to get up with me."

But Zhenya pulled, and Sid relented, sliding back under the covers with him. Sid didn't want to sleep, though. Zhenya got that message when Sid started restlessly brushing his fingers down Zhenya's stomach and lower while angling in for a kiss.

Zhenya had learned to live on less sleep since arriving in Nova Scotia. The exchange of benefits was wholly worth it.

By the time Alexander called, Zhenya was fresh from the shower and just making his way out of the bedroom, leaving Sid behind to do whatever meticulous thing to his hair he would only mess up later when he went to train. It must have been on its last ring when he answered, and he barely got through a greeting before being accosted by Alexander's snappy question.

Zhenya leaned a forearm on the French door leading out onto the back porch. Fog lay heavy over the lawn, rolling in off the lake as it did most mornings.

"I, uh--I got held up. I'm sorry," Zhenya said to Alexander. He really did feel bad. They had planned to start skating the first week of July, and it was already well past that, closer to August than June.

"In Miami?" Alexander said, his irritable tone easing. He might have even sounded relieved, probably hoping they were changing their summer training locale to somewhere tropical. "Why didn't you say so? I could have joined you there instead."

"No, I'm not in Miami."

Zhenya left Miami weeks ago, chasing the possibility of kissing Sid onto a plane ride to Canada.

Sid met him at the airport just outside customs, and for a disorienting moment, neither of them knew how to be around each other. Their whole relationship paradigm had shifted since the last time they were together, and they both seemed to realize that at once, staring at one another in the expansive hallways of Halifax Stanfield.

They struggled to make conversation while walking and waiting at baggage claim. Things between them were so stilted, Zhenya started to panic. Maybe they didn't have what he thought. It seemed impossible, after so many years of comfortable friendship, but there was an awkward rift between them, a near-tangible wrongness that made his throat feel tight and his stomach tie in knots.

As soon as Zhenya slid into the passenger seat of Sid's car, everything changed. Sid barely let Zhenya get the door closed before he tugged on his sleeve and pulled him in. It was risky, even with tinted windows in an uninhabited corner of the parking garage, but god was it worth it when Sid kissed him.

When Sid pulled back, he looked so pleased. The awkwardness was simultaneously banished and explained--it was tightly-wound anticipation, the same taut feeling as the pre-game before a playoff final when the Cup was so close. Sid didn't regret inviting Zhenya. He simply couldn't wait to get him alone.

Sid licked his lips and grinned. "Hi."

Zhenya reached for his hand where it was resting between them on the console and threaded their fingers together. "Hi."

"I can't believe you're here."

Zhenya leaned in to kiss Sid again, just because he could. "Believe me. I'm here."

After that, things were easy between them. Sid drove them home to his house and showed Zhenya around, a tour that did not include a guest room. Zhenya figured it must be one of the closed doors down the hall from the master, but Sid didn't offer to get him set up there, and Zhenya wouldn't have taken it. If they were changing things, he wanted to burn any trace of propriety down and dive in headfirst. So he dropped his bag on the foot of Sid's bed like he was coming home from a long trip, all his life leading up to that point, and staked his claim.

Sid kissed him like a reward for good behavior, slow and sultry, and they didn't make it back out of the bedroom for a while. It seemed Sid agreed that moving slowly would be a waste of time, the way he pushed for more, hands first tugging at Zhenya's shirt to get it off and then moving them toward the bed. Zhenya hadn't expected to show up and immediately jump to fooling around--it wasn't a booty call--but he certainly couldn't complain about Sid straddling him on the mattress. It felt inevitable, all of it. What did it matter how fast they got there?

"Okay," Alexander said, his voice cutting through Zhenya's memories and pulling him back to the conversation. Annoyance was creeping back into his tone. "You're not in Miami. You're not in Moscow. Are you in Pittsburgh?"

"No, I'm in Canada."

"Why? Who are you working with there? How do you even know any Canadian trainers?"

Zhenya didn't really think Andy counted as a Canadian trainer, not really. After all, he spent most of the year in Pittsburgh.

In over a decade with the Penguins, Zhenya had never used Andy for offseason training. He had his own methods, ones that had served him well for years, but he needed a change. Maybe Andy's ideas about bulking and strengthening could help. After all, he kept reinventing Sid, tinkering with his program and bringing him back every season seemingly healthier and stronger than ever.

To his credit, Andy barely batted an eyelash when Zhenya showed up with Sid on his second day in the country. If anything, he just seemed to approve, looking over his glasses with a little smile. "Geno, good to see you. Why don't you jump in with Sid for warmups while I get something together for you."

After that first day, Andy had Zhenya on a routine of his own, a meticulously tracked plan of attack to build muscle while increasing stability. Three weeks in, Zhenya had to admit he was feeling the results. Other than being fucking sore all the time, he felt faster. When they skated, he could feel the spring in his stride, the extra push of explosive power cutting the blade down into the ice.

"You look great," Sid told him in the locker room after a skate, eyes roaming over Zhenya's body like he didn't see enough of it at home. Zhenya smirked up at him, and Sid fumbled for words. "I mean, not like that. You're getting so much stronger. You look unstoppable."

Sid ogling him for hockey didn't turn Zhenya on any less than his bedroom eyes. Zhenya preened and didn't bother wearing a towel to walk to the shower. Nothing any trainer could say to him, no praise from coaches could ever make him work as hard as Sid's attention. So he kept improving, finding more when he thought his energy ran out. His drive to impress Sid left him ragdoll-tired after every training session, but it yielded on-ice results that he couldn't deny. The training was working.

"That's what happens when you stay in the league," Zhenya said into the phone, a dig at Alexander, who fled back to Russia after a disastrous attempt to make his NHL career work in Nashville. Zhenya never blamed him, but he teased, particularly now that the intervening years had soothed the sting. "You meet people--North American trainers who work you to death."

Zhenya could practically hear Alexander rolling his eyes. "Right, you have all the connections. How could I ever meet a real trainer in a sad Southern hockey town like Dallas?"

Alexander never joked about Nashville when he played there. It said great things about his satisfaction level with the Stars, that he was happy.

"So, that's it," Alexander pushed. "One bad playoff run, and you're changing everything about your summer training? That's really drastic."

"It's not that different, what I'm doing now," Zhenya said as he pushed away from the glass door to pace back into the house, but it was tough to deny. Usually, by mid-July, he would be in Moscow alternating gym and ice time while he rehabbed and rebuilt his body. That much, the training part, was similar--other than the system and the company. Everything else about his daily life was different.

There was so much to do in Moscow. It felt like a whirlwind of parties and dinners and friends clambering for his attention. By contrast, Nova Scotia seemed so quiet. If he'd thought about it at all before jumping on a plane to get to Sid and kiss him, Zhenya would have assumed he would hate it, the peace, the slow pace of life.

He loved it.

Their days were all pretty similar, once the newness of Zhenya's arrival wore off and they fell quickly into a comfortable routine. Zhenya could have anticipated that much. Sid was the ultimate creature of habit.

They got up with the alarm on the days Zhenya couldn't coax Sid to stay in bed and lounged around the house for a while--"waking up," as Sid would put it. That was his code for sitting on the back porch sipping a cup of coffee while he watched the fog recede, doing nothing.

Zhenya thrilled at learning about Sid's summer-only habits. Sid had a porch in Pittsburgh, too, but he didn't drink coffee much during the season. Caffeine could be unpredictable, cause crashes at inconvenient times. So Zhenya never knew how much Sid cherished his first cup in the morning.

By late morning, they would be meeting Andy at the gym or a local track or the rink. Training took up what seemed like a massive amount of time, but they were always done by noon and free for the day. Afterward, Sid would slide into the car freshly showered and grin at him.

"Where to today?"

Zhenya would have been perfectly content just lounging around Sid's house the entire visit, but Sid seemed intent on showing him Nova Scotia one significant locale at a time. They went to lunch at some of Sid's favorite restaurants, visited a few lovely parks, and spent longer than Zhenya would care to admit kept his attention at a maritime museum.

Late afternoons were quiet even by Nova Scotia standards, mostly because Sid had errands to run or people to meet. It was his home, after all, and Zhenya showing up didn't absolve Sid of his obligations. Zhenya usually took the opportunity to soothe his aching body in the hot tub and relax, then nap or read until Sid got home.

Sid cooked most nights, not because he had to, but just because he liked it. It was another thing he didn't get much of a chance to do during the season, with their relentless schedule. Unlike the coffee, though, Zhenya knew Sid liked cooking. He particularly liked grilling. Anything that could be prepared outside would be.

Zhenya wasn't much of a cook. He'd never set his mind to learning how, figuring it was easier to pay someone else to do it, but his conviction on the subject wavered when it came to cooking with Sid. Sid always gave him something to do, after learning the first few times that leaving Zhenya without a job would result in Zhenya trying to distract him with touches and kisses. On one disastrous occasion, Zhenya's pestering caused Sid to leave the meat on the grill so long it turned to charcoal when they lost track of time.

Last night, while Sid prepared snapper, he pointed at a cutting board and said, "Slice those lemons, eh?"

Sid didn't even say please anymore, a circumvention of politeness their relationship only reached after they started sleeping together. It was a weird thing to be thrilled about, and he grinned to himself while cutting the lemons into evenly-sized slices to lay on the fish Sid was seasoning.

After dinner, Zhenya helped load the dishwasher before they settled in to play video games or watch TV. They went to bed around the same time Zhenya would typically be preparing to go out if he were in Moscow--most of the clubs there didn't even open until well after sundown. But instead of getting ready to go out, Zhenya stayed in and learned how Sid liked to have his nipples played with. It was a good break from the norm of his summertime life, and it was doing him a world of good. He felt recovered from the lost season already, the poison sucked from his wounds.

Zhenya's absent wandering led him into the kitchen. A bowl of lemons sat under the window, where the cutting board had been the night before. He reached out and touched one with a single finger while looking out at the lake and said, "I'm not sure I'm coming back."

"What?" Alexander said, and his sharp tone brought Zhenya back to reality. He knew it probably sounded deranged, from the other end of the line, for Zhenya to just up and run away to Canada. Sure enough, Alexander's next words were measured and careful. "You know nobody here is mad at you, right? You did well at Worlds."

He didn't. Zhenya did the same at Worlds as he'd done all season--just okay.

"You can come home."

"I know that," Zhenya said, warmed by the sentiment. "I'm not running away. I just--I need to be here."

"You're really starting to freak me out. Have you been kidnapped?"

"Don't be freaked out. I'm fine."

"That's exactly what a hostage would say."

On cue, a hand ran up Zhenya's back. Sid appeared beside him with an inquisitive look. Clearly, a phone call in Russian so early in the day had him worried. Zhenya's family usually only called in the afternoon, evening their time. Zhenya made a face he hoped would convey that it was nothing to worry about and kissed him. Sid looked satisfied with the gesture and reached for the coffee pot.

Zhenya supposed he could just outright tell Alexander why he was staying in Canada, that he was watching his reason pour piping hot dark roast into a white mug with a red maple leaf on it. He wasn't sure how that would go.

"I'm not a hostage," Zhenya said because he was nothing if not willing.

Sid's fingers brushed Zhenya's arm when he passed, heading for the porch as wonderfully predictable as ever. Zhenya didn't even have to follow Sid to know what he was doing. He could hear the slide of the back door right on cue, then imagine Sid walking barefoot across the porch to settle in his usual chair.

Zhenya would have to start telling people eventually. He was too old to be in a secret relationship. That was never part of the plan. Why not start with Alexander, one of his friends in the league? It would be a one-for-one trade with Sid since Nate knew. Though, to be fair, they never told Nate.

They made it a couple of weeks into regular training with Andy before they did anything reckless. Zhenya couldn't be blamed, the way Sid looked at him after a workout. It seemed inevitable to Zhenya that Sid's hot gaze wouldn't stop there.

The day they messed up, they ran outdoor sprints with Nate on one of the hottest days of the year until Sid's shirt clung to his chest, soaked from shoulder to waist from the effort. Zhenya mostly kept his eyes on his own work, concentrating on running in a straight line, but he knew Sid caught him looking a few times, just like Zhenya could feel Sid's eyes on his shirtless back.

It was honestly a testament to Nate's naivety that he didn't know something was up before. Zhenya knew Andy did, the way he shook his head at them with a barely contained smirk.

Sid and Zhenya made it inside before Nate, which was a recipe for disaster. The tension in the locker room skyrocketed with every piece of clothing shed. Zhenya passed closer to Sid than necessary on his way to the shower, and that was it. He made it under the spray with his face upturned before hands slid onto his hips, and Sid's lips pressed reverently onto his shoulder.

"God, you're distracting."

Zhenya grinned up into the water before he turned. "Don't like?"

"You know I do," Sid said as he pulled Zhenya in.

Zhenya let Sid get him pinned against the tile kissing a line up his neck before he remembered there were other people around, and then only because Nate walked in and made a choked noise before he started profusely apologizing.

"Oh, sorry! I was just--" Nate turned his back and covered his eyes. "I didn't know you guys were--"

"We're not," Sid said, the liar, because if Nate had given then a couple more minutes, they would have been. He stepped back with an apologetic grimace at Zhenya and retreated to the showerhead next to him. "Don't worry, it's safe now."

Nate took halting steps across the shower, cutting wary looks at Zhenya the whole time. He took the showerhead on the other side of Sid, like Zhenya might pounce if he didn't. Zhenya rolled his eyes and turned around to face the spray again.

Back in the locker room, Nate's glances kept coming. Zhenya gritted his teeth. He was nearly at the breaking point, ready to snap at Nate about his staring problem, when Nate piped up with, "Hey, Geno? You like golf?"

Zhenya shook his head. "No. Boring."

"Oh," Nate said. He sounded like someone popped his balloon. "It's just, we were going this afternoon."

"Yes, I know," Zhenya said. He wasn't sure what that had to do with him. He looked up. Nate was staring at him like a puppy slowly wagging its tail, hoping he would pick up a leash and go for a walk. "Have fun," Zhenya offered.

Nate visibly deflated, but he dropped it.

In the car, Sid said, "He wants to be your friend."

"Why?"

"Because he's my friend. He doesn't want to exclude you, make you feel left out."

Zhenya didn't feel left out. He had big plans for a long nap while Sid was on the golf course. "Okay. Tell him thank you. Is very nice, but--"

"I know, you hate golf," Sid said with all the fondness in the world, like disliking a game was just so endearing. He smiled over and took a hand away from the wheel to reach for Zhenya's. "Maybe I'll invite him over for dinner this week. Or we can go out."

Zhenya made a noncommittal noise and happily held Sid's hand on his thigh. Let the Canadians worry about polite things like dinner invitations. He had what he wanted.

Of course, Alexander wasn't as easy going as Nate. Zhenya tried to gauge what he thought Alexander's reaction would be. He was pretty sure it wouldn't be a golf invitation for Sid.

"You're being fucking weird," Alexander sighed on the line. Apparently, he was out of sympathy. "Are you seriously not coming back? I want to get started on the ice."

"Don't let me stop you. There are lots of people you can skate with."

"Right, Moscow is lousy with NHL caliber centers. I'll just ask around."

"Kuznetsov must be somewhere around there." Zhenya cringed at the idea even as he said it.

"I'd rather drink gasoline."

Zhenya chuckled. "Fair enough," he said as he wandered into the den. The light was low with the shades drawn--they'd closed the room up to watch a movie in the dark. Only, Sid kept getting bored with the plot and trying to get into Zhenya's pants, which eventually worked, and they never opened things back up again before going to bed. Zhenya pulled the shades up, and soft light flooded the room.

"Surely your Canadian mystery trainer has a phone," Alexander said. "Can't he give you plans remotely, let you come home?"

Zhenya paused by the coffee table, eyes on the novel lying there, askew. It was nothing spectacular--just a kind of hokey mystery, but it was by one of his favorite authors, and he'd been eager enough to read it that he ordered it to Sid's house instead of waiting to get it in Russia. He had his favorite tea in the kitchen cabinet, and his clothes hung in Sid's closet. Sid's house wasn't precisely home yet, but it felt like the right place to be.

"I'm sorry," Zhenya said, tearing his eyes away from the novel. "I know we had plans. I wasn't expecting to have to change them. I've got something going on. Something more than training."

"Oh," Alexander laughed. "Okay, got it. You could just say it's about a woman."

"It's not--"

"I've been your friend for a long time. It wouldn't be the first time you ditched me to hook up."

"No, I--"

"Is there even a trainer, or is it just a Canadian girl?"

"Of course there's a trainer. I wouldn't neglect my job for a date."

"Well, get her a passport and bring her along. I'll get my training partner back, and you can show her Russia. Take her out to St. Petersburg--she'll love it."

Zhenya had no doubt Sid would love St. Petersburg, with its colorful architecture and river winding through the city, the temperate weather in summer. It would be a perfect, romantic trip, one Zhenya expected he would plan one day when they'd been dating more than a month.

"I can't."

"Bring the trainer, too. I'll give him a try, if he's working for you."

"Yeah, the trainer is great, but Alex--"

"What? What's in Canada that you can't get here?"

"It's Sid."

"What's Sid?"

"The girl. It's not a girl. It's Sid. I'm dating him."

It felt like a kind of relief, saying it out loud, a release of the pressure of keeping it in. Like a levee breaking.

And like a levee breaking, Zhenya knew there would be consequences.

Alexander was silent.

"So, uh--yeah. It's pretty new. It seems unfair to just throw Sid into the deep end of the pool like that. Moscow is a lot. Lots of people he's never met. Different language and food and weather."

Zhenya knew he was rambling, filling the silence with nervous words while waiting for Alexander to say something.

Alexander cleared his throat. "This isn't a joke."

"No," Zhenya said, bracing against the increasingly likely scenario that he was about to lose a friend.

After another long beat, Alexander sighed. "Well--I'm not going to offer to suck your dick to get you to come back, so I guess Sid wins. As usual."

Zhenya snorted a surprised laugh. "You're not mad?"

"Of course, I'm fucking mad. You're leaving me for the guy you've been moping after for years. What's so special about him? He won't even show up to watch football with you, not even for the World Cup. Who went with you there, offered you a shoulder to cry on when Sid abandoned you?"

Zhenya's relief at Alexander's sarcasm rushed over his body, adrenaline and fear releasing into joy. If Alexander could joke about it, it meant he approved. "I know. Nobody could ever love me like you."

"Always remember that."

"I'll be sure to let Sid know he has some stiff competition."

Zhenya grinned as he succeeded in getting a wry chuckle out of Alexander.

"I'm sorry for abandoning you."

"You are not," Alexander said with a massive smile in his voice. "But I forgive you. Now, go play with your Canadians. I have real work to do."

Zhenya said goodbye through the choked feeling in his throat and dropped his phone into his pocket. He felt drained in a good way, having wrung the negative emotions out of his soul like a wet cloth.

Zhenya slid out onto the back porch. His footsteps made soft thumping sounds against the wood, audible enough to catch Sid's attention. He turned back with a grin.

"I was wondering if you'd be out."

Zhenya pulled up a chair, settled in beside Sid, and put his head on Sid's shoulder.

"Who was that?" Sid asked, trying for a light tone but sounding concerned underneath.

"Radulov. Want to know where I'm go, want to go train like we plan."

"Oh," Sid said, again trying not to sound worried. "What did you tell him?"

"Tell him I have girlfriend in Canada, so can't leave."

Sid tensed and reared back to look at him with a considerable amount of apprehension. Zhenya knew what he was thinking--they weren't in this to lie to people. Maybe they didn't want to make any kind of big announcement while they were still active players, but they weren't exactly planning to go to any extremes to hide.

"Just kidding. I say I'm here with you, train with you. Can't come to Moscow."

"You told him--"

"We're date. It's okay, he won't say around to people. I just want to say to him."

"You told him everything?"

"Not everything," Zhenya said slyly.

"And he was okay with it?"

"Sure, he says he knows I have crush long time."

"On me?" Sid asked, obviously delighted.

Zhenya shrugged, face heating as he blushed. He could have just not said anything.

"That's so cute."

Zhenya sneered at him but accepted the offer of a kiss to soothe the sting left by Sid's patronizing. He returned to his place, leaning on Sid's shoulder.

"Things are starting to feel pretty real, eh? Nate knows. Radulov. Our parents. Only a matter of time before the team finds out."

If Zhenya had any doubts about the reality of the thing between them, he would have never flown to Canada. But he could see what Sid meant. People starting to find out felt concrete, inevitable. The vague map guiding them from friendship to a relationship was beginning to become apparent, the path ahead lighting up with every milestone reached.

Zhenya kissed Sid's shoulder. "It's real."

Sid made a content sound and rested his cheek on Zhenya's head. Zhenya could tell without looking that he was smiling.